Monday, June 24, 2013

Does 3D stand for "Dead, Dead, Dead?"

Industry blog "The Wrap" reports that first-weekend 3D ticket sales for "Monsters University" and "World War Z" represented the smallest percentage of total sales since the introduction of digital 3D to theaters. "Monsters University" took in 31% of its revenues from 3D ticket sales; prior to that, the least successful 3D animated movie release was "Brave," with 34% of its tickets sold for 3D showings. "World War Z" took in 34% of its revenues from 3D ticket sales; the previous low was 40% for "Captain America." 3D hardware vendor and licensor RealD tried to put a good face on a bad situation by pointing out that "Man of Steel" opened with 41% of its revenues from 3D ticket sales. The problem, of course, is that 41% number was only 1% higher than the previous all-time low.

Last week, ESPN announced that it's shutting down its ESPN 3D channel because of low viewership. According to the Associated Press, FIFA, the organization behind World Cup soccer, is considering whether to drop 3D coverage of the 2014 World Cup because of cost, and instead is considering 4K Ultra HD coverage. Sales of 3D HDTVs in general are difficult to break out because high-end devices tend to be compatible with 3D whether or not consumers actually use the 3D features. Nevertheless, there's a fairly clear trend toward sales of lower-priced HDTVs that can't support 3D.

Consumer electronics companies have largely come to the conclusion that 3D is a dead end, and are instead focusing their attention and development resources on Ultra HD (UHD). UHD doesn't require glasses and doesn't cause the headaches and dizziness that some people get with 3D. The movie industry is already well along with its transition to 4K production and post-production; the biggest remaining issue is coming up with cost-effective ways to deliver 4K movies. Television producers are further behind because of the lack of a UHD broadcast standard, but the cost of 4K equipment is dropping rapidly, and television shows can be produced in 4K but down-converted to 2K for broadcast.

3D in theaters won't go away, but if the average percentage of box office revenues from 3D falls to 25% or so, studios will have to become much more selective as to which movies are produced in or converted to 3D. Eventually, studios will be forced to drop 3D if the cost of production and post-production is equal to or greater than the incremental revenue that they earn from 3D ticket sales.

Update, July 5, 2013: Yesterday, the BBC announced that it will suspend 3D broadcasts "indefinitely" because of a lack of viewer interest. Coming on the heels of ESPN's decision to discontinue ESPN 3D, the BBC's action makes it even clearer that, for now at least, consumer big-screen 3D in homes is dead. That doesn't mean that 3D is dead everywhere, however. Theatrical 3D remains viable, although audiences have gotten much more selective about which 3D releases they're willing to pay for. Oculus's immersive Rift 3D visor is getting positive reviews and lots of interest from game developers, but the real test will be when Oculus releases its consumer-grade hardware and publishers release 3D games for the device.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Set-top boxes and game consoles: The $99 option

Last week, I wrote about installing my OUYA game console, which lists for $99 (U.S.) OUYA's isn't the only Android game console--there are several available or in development, all of which sell in the $99-$129 price range and all of which run "casual" games. $99 is also the consensus price point for over-the-top (OTT) set-top boxes from Roku, Vizio, Apple and other vendors.

It's very unlikely that hardcore gamers will prefer Android consoles to the Xbox One or Sony's Playstation 4. Even with a Tegra 4 chip set, which some of the newer Android consoles will have this fall, they won't have the performance to be able to compete with Microsoft's or Sony's consoles. On the other hand, while the Xbox One will have features that the $99 set-top boxes don't, such as voice recognition and gesture control, it's equally unlikely that set-top buyers will be willing to spend $400 more to get them. In short, serious gamers want high-end game consoles and are willing to pay for them, while Internet set-top box buyers who aren't gamers are unlikely to pay a high premium in order to get gaming features.

For the OUYA and similar devices to succeed, they have to prove that people want to play the same games that they already play on their smartphones and tablets on their big-screen televisions as well. Despite OUYA's successful Kickstarter campaign, that's still an unproven hypothesis. In addition, the Internet set-top box market is still far from proven--Logitech dropped its Google TV-based STB, Boxee is said to be looking for an acquirer or additional capital, Roku is increasingly emphasizing software licensing to HDTV manufacturers, and Apple TV has graduated from being a "hobby" but still contributes minuscule revenues to the company.

It's still too early to tell if there's a market for either low-cost game consoles or third-party Internet set-top boxes at any price. We may get more clarity by the end of this year's Holiday season.
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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

OUYA: Lots of potential, but not quite ready for prime time

Last week, I got my OUYA game console, in what was one of the last batch of devices to go out to Kickstarter supporters. I've got it connected and working (sometimes,) but the device's potential is considerably greater than what the current console can deliver.

At the outset, let me make clear that I'm not dumping on either OUYA's device or the company itself. I want to see OUYA succeed, but to say that the current device is "rough around the edges" is an understatement:

  • The instruction manual that comes with the console explains how to connect and power up the device, but it says nothing about how to add batteries to the controllers. It's easy enough to find information on the Internet on how to take off the side panels in order to add batteries, but users shouldn't have to do that.
  • When I first turned the console on, all I got was the "circle U" logo on screen, which stayed there quite a while. I assumed that the console was locked up, so I held down the power button until the console powered down. Then, I powered it back up, and had the same problem, so I pulled the power plug, waited a while, and turned it back on. Same problem. It took several tries before the console successfully booted up and came to the home screen.
  • Once in the user interface, OUYA bounces between customized screens and conventional Android menus and dialog boxes. That's not all that confusing for people who are familiar with stock Android, but it's likely to be a problem for novice users. For example, when downloading and installing a game, it looked as though I'd installed the game based on OUYA's prompts, but then I got an Android dialog box which asked if I wanted to install the game. So, I installed it (or installed it again.)
  • My console has locked up a variety of times, usually when restarting the console or when searching for a game to install. Lockups require that the power cord be removed for several minutes.
  • If you want to purchase a game, you have to first save your credit card information in an OUYA account. There's no way to enter a credit card from within games. At this point, I don't feel comfortable keeping my credit card permanently on file with OUYA, and I don't want to go through the process of first entering and then deleting it every time I want to buy a game or make an in-app purchase.
  • There's also no way to manage your account from the OUYA website. It would be much easier to enter credit card information from a web browser, but other than creating an account, everything has to be done from the console.
  • I love the fact that OUYA is open to any game developer, but that sometimes results in inconsistent or missing controls. For example, I've been unable to figure out how to completely exit from several games. In one case, the game has a menu with an "Exit" option that's available by pressing the power button on the controller, but all it does it take you back to the game's home page. There's no way to completely exit the game (at least that I've found.)
All of these problems are fixable, but taken together, it's clear that the OUYA console is, or should still be, in beta testing. However, the console is scheduled to go on sale to the general public on June 25th, through Amazon, Best Buy, GameStop and Target. As of today, I can't recommend that you buy an OUYA. If you wait a few months, the most serious bugs should be worked out, and there should be a much better selection of games available. OUYA would probably have been better off by holding off on general retail availability until the fall.

As I said, I'm a big fan of the ideas underlying OUYA, and I think that it will eventually be a great casual gaming console with lots of potential for set-top box applications as well. It's just not there yet.
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It's a can, it's a coffeemaker, it's the new Mac Pro

Over the last few weeks, rumors have been flying about a new Mac Pro with a dramatically different physical design than the current model, which has been on the market with fairly minor changes for the last seven years. Yesterday, at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference, the company took the wraps off of the new Mac Pro. It's a prototype for which Apple gave neither pricing nor a delivery date, but the industrial design seems solid enough that the final product isn't likely to change very much from the prototype.

Compared to today's big, bulky, heavy Mac Pro that's more of a "deskside" tower than a desktop PC, the new Mac Pro looks a lot like an oversize, black beer can. It's a 9.9" high cylinder that's 6.6" in diameter--small and light enough to easily fit into a backpack. To get to that size, Apple had to make almost all expansion options external. The new Mac Pro will come with one or two Xeon processors with as many as 12 cores, and two AMD FirePro GPUs that can support as many as three 4K displays. Internal storage is provided by flash on a PCIe interface; there's simply no room for hard drives.

Six Thunderbolt 2 and four USB 3 interfaces will provide high-speed connections to mass storage arrays, audio and video I/O devices, PCI expansion chassis, big-screen displays, etc. The Mac Pro will also come with dual FireWire 800 interfaces, a Gigabit Ethernet interface, HDMI 1.4 for an external display, an 802.11ac Wi-Fi interface, and Bluetooth 4.0, which Apple expects will be used for keyboards, mice and similar devices.

The primary design center for the new Mac Pro is video post-production. It can certainly be used for other applications, but video editing, color correction and special effects are where the Mac Pro really fits. The ability to support three 4K displays with even the entry-level model says that the new Mac Pro is aimed at motion picture-quality image processing.

That having been said, I have no doubt that we'll see other PC workstations in packages similar to the Mac Pro, probably as soon as next January's CES conference. Just as with the iMac and a legion of other all-in-one computers, MacBook Airs and Ultrabooks, iPhones and all the big-screen button- and keyboard-free smartphones, and even tablets, in which Apple was far from the first vendor of tablets but was the first to make them a huge business, the new Mac Pro will represent a new form factor that's first validated by Apple and then adopted by many other companies.

We don't know when the new Mac Pro will be released or how much it will cost. I suspect that it'll be released in late Q3 or early Q4, and it'll be priced comparably to the existing Mac Pro--which means that it won't be cheap, but also won't be priced out of line with other Xeon-based workstations.
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